Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Time for Tea

It’s Autumn in England, which means that, aside from a few precious and rare Indian Summer days, our island is getting much cooler, very damp and if there is any sunshine, it is only in the middle of the day. It’s dark when we get up in the morning, and by the time folks are returning home from work it is beginning to get dark again. Before long that will happen by 4pm, and in winter’s depths, much earlier. In fact, on many a Christmas Day I have known it to be dark by 2pm.

Although most people here do have many cups of tea in a day, and often stop for a little something with their cuppa about four or five o’clock, it’s this time of year when you see more people visiting a restaurant or tea room for a proper “afternoon tea”.

In the summer, cream teas are popular. These consist of tea (of course) and scones served with butter, jam and clotted cream. And while people do take tea at the Ritz and other top London restaurants in the summer, full afternoon tea is hardly light summer fare, so now is the time of year when it becomes truly the thing to do. It’s cold, dark and probably wet, and there is nothing like afternoon tea to cheer you up.

If you are going to do afternoon tea “properly”, there is no place on earth like the Ritz in London’s Park Avenue. However you will need plenty of time, a fair amount of money, and last but not least, reservations booked well in advance. Sadly you will also need these things at other top London venues as well including The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus and The Mandarin Orient Hotel opposite Harrods – or indeed at Harrods itself. The Georgian Restaurant on their fourth floor, where the aristocracy once dined, offers a lovely afternoon tea. So does the Savoy, and pretty much every other top London hotel. If you happen to be elsewhere in England, there is sure to be somewhere offering this famous repast. Birmingham has the Marriott Hotel among other lovely venues, in Derbyshire there is Dovecliffe Hall and Harrogate has the famous “Betty’s”. If there is one thing it is not hard to find in England it is a place that serves afternoon tea.

Full afternoon tea will set you back between £30 and £40 each. Now, at about $65, this might sound a bit on the extravagant side, but believe me, it is an experience you won’t soon forget – and I can promise you that if you do want any supper, you won’t want very much. However, if you want a more economical option, there are lots of lovely little tea rooms and restaurants that offer a wonderful afternoon tea that is much less hard on the pocketbook!

Tea time normally falls roughly anytime between three and six o’clock, although the Ritz does offer sittings at 11.30, 1.30 and 7.30 pm as well as 3.30 and 5.30. Strictly speaking the earlier and latest time are not traditional or “proper” but if you are on a diet it is probably a good idea to replace lunch or dinner with tea instead of having it as a meal unto itself. The most difficult question you are likely to be asked at tea time is what sort of tea you would like. Most places offer a selection of at least twelve kinds, and many offer even more than that. However as long as you can describe how you like your tea to taste (strong, weak etc), the waiter will be able to help, much as a sommelier would help you to choose your wine. As a general guide – or if you feel too intimidated to ask – Assam tea is quite strong, Lapsang Souchong is very smoky, Darjeeling is light and easy to drink, as is Ceylon tea. Many restaurants, including the Ritz and Betty’s, offer their own blend which is usually absolutely delicious. Incidentally, if you fancy a glass of something stronger than tea, most places offer a “champagne afternoon tea” at a slightly higher price – but you only get a glass of champagne – you still have to drink tea as well!!

Typical, formal afternoon tea consists of three courses. First you will be served with tea sandwiches – tiny, crust-less offerings made with gorgeous fillings. From Cucumber, smoked salmon or egg mayonnaise to the more common ham and cheese, these are nothing like your normal lunchtime sandwich. Chances are, if you do manage to finish offerings you are brought, the sandwich stand will miraculously refill as well. (This is why the cost of a proper afternoon tea is nearly always a set price.) Next course is warmed scones, served with butter, jam and clotted cream. Once, when I was served afternoon tea (in Switzerland of all places!) the scones were tiny miniature versions of a normal scone, quite magical really. But whatever size they are, these melt in your mouth morsels are delicious. Purists will argue about whether the jam goes on before or after the cream, but in my experience the least messy option is butter first, jam second and a dollop of cream last. Be careful not to eat too many though, because the next course is the real star – it’s the cake and pastries course. Usually the serving plate offers tiny versions of delicious favourites – millefeuille, miniature chocolate cakes, baby lemon tarts, meringues and fondant fancies (known as petits-four in North America). I’ve had some beautiful things. This summer one London hotel – the Berkeley in Knightsbridge - offered a lighter “Prêt-à-Portea” featuring confections inspired by the Spring/Summer 09 fashion collections including designs by Michael Kors, Balmain and Oscar de la Renta among others. There were handbag cakes, bikinis on cookie models and dresses – amazing! Afternoon tea is any pastry chef’s opportunity to show off, and believe me, they do.

If you do come to England this Autumn – or anytime at all to be fair – I highly recommend indulging in Afternoon Tea at least once. Taking tea is the most British of things to do, and we really are not half as stuffy about it as we used to be! Most afternoon tea experiences are nothing short of delightful and the perfect outing whether you are with family or friends. It’s a great way to introduce children (I’d suggest over the age of eight) to a more formal dining experience, but one filled with food they will really like to eat! Whether you choose the glamorous option of Tea at the Ritz (gentlemen have to wear ties) or go for something a little more cozy in a quaint tea room in the countryside, it is an experience not to be missed.

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